The Best Gift Cards for the Holidays

visa-gift-card2Let’s face it, it’s not always possible to get the right gift for everybody on your Christmas list. Sure, some people are pretty easy to buy gifts for, but for everyone else – well, that’s what gift cards are for.

It’s often believed that gives cards are default gifts, almost as if they are the least you can do for person, gift-wise. Maybe that’s true – maybe – but gift cards can also be the gift buyers best friend. The problem with Christmas is sheer volume – you probably buy gifts for a lot of people. That takes more than the usual amount of thought and effort. 

While giving an actual gift does represent more thought, gift cards are perfect when you need to buy a lot of gifts, and don‘t know what to buy for many of the people on your list. They also save you a lot of time, both on shopping for gifts and on wrapping them. And from a budgeting standpoint, they can be a real asset. If you have 10 people you need to buy gifts for and a $200 budget, you can simply buy each person a $20 gift card. Christmas shopping problem solved!
What are the best gift cards for the holidays?

Prepaid debit cards

Visa and American Express both issue gift cards at dozens of retail outlets, including grocery stores, discount retailers, and pharmacy chains. You can buy the blank cards, and then add any dollar amount to the card that you like.

These are the perfect gift cards to get for someone who you don’t know what to buy and don’t even know what they like and where they shop. The cards will be accepted anywhere that Visa and American Express credit cards are, which means that they can be used almost universally. That means that the gift receiver can use the card anywhere that they want – it’s hard not to love that kind of gift.

Mall gift cards

If you aren’t sure what stores a person actually shops in – but you at least know what shopping mall they frequent – buying a mall gift card can be the way to go. Most malls issue gift cards that are good at any of the stores in that mall. The receiver can take the card and use it at the store of his or her choice.

Mall gift cards may have a slight advantage over prepaid debit cards because they are more specific in their application (“at least you know what mall I shop in“), but still general enough that they can be used in a wide variety of stores. And since they’re considerably rarer than prepaid debit cards, you might have something more of a “wow factor” – as in not quite a gift, but a little bit more than the typical gift card.

Common “big box” retailer cards

If you do want to be a little bit more specific in the type of card you get for a person, buy gift cards to big-box retailers. Nearly everyone shops at stores like Walmart, Target, Home Depot, or Lowe’s – at least sooner or later. Even if the receiver doesn’t, the cards are easily re-gifted.

The advantage to these cards – and why they might be a little bit more appreciated than other types of cards – is that since big-box retailers are at the lower end of the pricing structure, the cards will buy more. They are also an excellent choice for certain types of people, including newlyweds, people in their first apartment or someone buy home. In any of those situations, these gift cards can be especially valuable.

General use merchant gift cards

If you want to give a gift card with perhaps a little bit more thought, you can choose a card from a specific retailer. Starbucks gift cards are good to give because everyone either goes to Starbucks – at least occasionally – or can easily re-gift the cards.

Movie theater gift cards can be an excellent choice for families with young children. Going to the movies is no longer inexpensive, especially for families. A gift card to a theater could represent a night out for a family on a tight budget. Along the same line, a gift card to the receiver's favorite restaurant could be the equivalent of buying them dinner out.
You can also buy gift cards to various common grocery stores in your area. This can be especially good for people who are struggling financially, or even for senior citizens who may have more basic needs.

Today, shopping online is common. A gift card to a major online retailer, such as Amazon Gift Cards, could be warmly appreciated. Just make sure that the person you’re buying the card for does frequent the site. These can make excellent gifts for employees and coworkers.

Specialty store cards – but only in special circumstances

It’s usually more difficult to do, but if you know that a person frequents a certain type of store, getting them a gift card for that store can be warmly appreciated. For example, if a person is a sports enthusiast, a gift card to The Sports Authority is an excellent idea. If they’re into hunting, fishing, or camping, Bass Pro Shops is a good choice.

However, if you’re giving specialty store cards, you must be doubly sure that the person actually does shop at that store. Because the stores are so specialized, these cards can be very difficult to re-gift, which means that there’s a real possibility that they will never be used by the person you’re giving them to. Translation: wasted gift!

One other point specialty store cards…people sometimes give gift cards to stores that they, the gift giver, shop at. But just because you shop at a certain store doesn’t mean the person you’re giving the card to does also. If you aren’t entirely sure if the person shops at a given specialty store, choose one of the general-purpose cards above, especially prepaid cards.

What do you think about gift cards as Christmas gifts? Some people love ’em, some people hate ’em – where do you stand?

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  1. Hi Kyle – Excellent point! That’s why I favor either more general cards, or ones to stores with lower prices. A Target gift card will get more/better use than a Sharper Image gift card of the same amount.

  2. Hey Kevin. I’d also add to give a gift card that has enough money on it that the recipient can actually get something without having to use their own money. Example; A few years ago I was given a $20 gift card to Sharper Image, have you ever tried to buy something at Sharper Image for less than $20? Not humanly possible…

  3. We end up giving gift cards to certain family members since they explicitly ask for them. I suppose it’s nice since it’s such an easy gift and hey, give the people what they want, right? But I’m not a big fan of the practice. From an emotional perspective, it seems a bit hollow as a gift. From a logical perspective, why not just give cash?

    • Hollow, at least a bit, but useful – definately!

  4. Nothing gets more excitement in my house than a gift card to a book store as kids we would spend hours plotting and strategizing to get the most out of it and then roam the store to make sure we got our pick just right. The other thing is clothes, it is so much better to give a gift card for a clothes store rather than trying to guess style and size.

    • Barnes and Noble gift cards are a winner in my family. Sooner or later we always end up there.

  5. I usually have a gift card or two on my list every year to specific stores, it makes it easier on my family since we are all spread out and live a ways from each other, saves a bunch on not having to ship big boxes of gifts!

    • Hi Anita – That’s an excellent point about distance, gift cards are even better when you have to ship because there’s no shipping charges. We use them frequently for birthday gifts since virtually all of our family are in other states.

  6. I love getting gift cards for Christmas – as long as it’s to a place I go, like a big box store. If I get one to a place I don’t shop, I’ll just sell it at a discount. Some money’s better than none, right?

    • Hi Laurie – I’m with you, I’ll take a gift card any day! It’s pure speculation, but I’d guess that most adults would, so they can get what they want. It can be a problem with kids, but then I’ve never seen a kid look glum after getting a gift card to Toys R Us!

      That’s a good idea selling the gift cards, at least you get some cash out of it.

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